Chapter 1: America’s Native Spirit
“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”- Mark Twain
Let’s begin our exploration of American food where many Americans begin their evening meal- with a stiff drink. The most likely stiff drink an American will pour for himself and for you if you are a guest is bourbon. It is considered impolite to refuse and, although rather different than anything you may have had before, it is best to get it over quickly. You will find your host does the same.
American drinking habits around meals are rather distinctive and I have found no true parallel in my international travels. The Frenchman or the Italian will drink wine throughout the meal and retire to cognac or grappa only once digestion has safely ended, a German will politely wait for schnapps between courses, with only a beer or a Riesling to accompany the meal itself. Even the rudest of modern British men will wait until after the meal for a smoke and a brandy or a Scotch. I have been told it is most similar to the Russian’s enjoyment of vodka and the reader may make their own judgment as to whether the similarity in habits is ideological or some deep rooted similarity between the Russian and American psyches. It is said that Delmonico’s, one of the greatest establishments of Franco-American cuisine before socialism, introduced a whiskey and cigar course because if they did not, their American audience would drink and smoke continuously throughout the meal. Whatever civilizing influence Delmonico’s may have had on the American elite, it did not trickle down under socialism.
An American will begin the evening meal, no matter whether it is at home or at a white tablecloth hard-currency establishment, with a ‘shot’, a quick quaff of the golden treacle-coloured spirit he calls ‘bourbon’. This may be accompanied by a slogan of some sorts. “Hail Britannia!” and “Vote Labour!” were common at events where I was a guest, “To Openness!” and “Towards Restructuring!” are common in politically sensitive establishments, a simple “Cheers!”, “Huzzah!” or “To Health!” is unlikely to be misunderstood. If he is at a hard currency establishment , the American will slam the ‘shot’ glass down next to his overfilled, over-oaked glass of California red, sloshing the contents of the wine glass on to the pure white tablecloth. He will be more delicate in his own home and may skip the wine in favor of one of the many sugary regional drinks popular across the United States, perhaps a Coca-Cola or the more common Moxie. He will then proceed to eat quickly and without much attention to what is placed before him and at random intervals, will signal to be served a fresh ‘shot’ if at a hard-currency establishment or will stand up to pour for himself and for you if at home. In the drinking etiquette of the United States, it is considered improper to eat at the evening meal before drinking the first shot and it is considered irregular to take two shots in quick succession without sampling at least some of the fare before you in between. One may decline any after the first shot without being regarded as rude, although it is best to try and keep up with your host. Delmonico’s at least succeeded in moving the cigar to after the meal, although many Americans will smoke cigarettes throughout.
So what is this spirit the American pours with abandon at meals? Bourbon, more properly “bourbon whiskey”  is a distant cousin of our own Scotch whisky and has been distilled in some form or fashion in America since at least the time of their unfortunate parting from us. Most of the bourbon poured in America could not be sold in the United Kingdom as whisky or even as “whiskey”. This is actually a sticking point for the American Export-Import Task Force (EITF) and the American Distillers’ and Distillery Workers’ Working Group (ADDWG, more commonly ADWG) , who have fought for years to label ‘bourbon’ sold in the UK as something other than “alcoholic spirit distilled in the United States of America from various cereal grains” which even the staunchest of socialists can realize is a poor starting point for marketing.
It is common for British guests to ask of their American hosts “What is the best bourbon?” or “What is your favorite bourbon?” and in many cases, this will be answered with a blank stare or the blunt statement that “bourbon is bourbon” and in many cases, this is true. Outside of the cramped aisles of a Chestnut in Manhattan  where one can find premier bourbons, most bourbon is low quality, relatively standardized and mostly interchangeable. Asking which is best is missing the point. Brand names, often based around historic distillers or distilleries, are assigned almost at random to whatever medium-gold to medium-brown liquid makes it into the bottle. In their battles with UK labeling authorities, the ADWG asserts that ‘bourbon whiskey’ is a unique and tradition-bound product of Kentucky, trying to assign the same significance to that rustic backwater as we apply to ours in Islay. In reality, most of what is made in the United States is made in Peoria, Illiniois and Lawrenceburg, Indiana and, while both can comfortably be described as backwaters, neither is well described as unique or tradition bound. Each is a distillery complex that would more than rival even the largest and the most industrial of Scotch whiskey facilities and neither has the romance of Kentucky or Islay.
This is not to say that there is not fine bourbon being made, nor that one can not enjoy less fine bourbon on its own merits. As a bachelor being paid primarily in pounds sterling in the United States, I found myself buying many a bottle of premier bourbons and California cognacs at a Chestnut. I have enjoyed a fine few that would not be out of place on the shelves of the better London off-licences. I spent my dollar stipends on bottles that were far cheaper and would deserve much the same esteem. However, quality is uneven and transparency non-existent when buying bourbon in America. Americans drink the good stuff too quickly because to do so with the bad stuff would be unpleasant and they have no means to tell the difference between the two. Until that changes, it is unlikely the American attitude towards the spirit will change. How bourbon got to this point is intimately related to the history of socialism in the country and to the reasons why it cannot be labeled as whisky/whiskey in the United Kingdom.
To understand how bourbon whiskey fared under socialism, one must understand the whiskey industry in the United States before socialism. The industry had rapidly gone from individual to family enterprises to large industrial trusts following the First American Civil War (1861-1865). In a period of rapid consolidation, there were multiple attempts to corner the market or “Whiskey Conspiracies”, one of which was large enough to implicate a sitting head of government in the acceptance of bribes and the obstruction of an investigation. The industry lurched from crisis to crisis, precipitating shocks in agricultural markets and in Washington D.C with each boom and bust. The industry’s own adulteration of their products, a conflict in broad strokes between ‘straight’ distillers and rectifiers, led to some of America’s first food safety laws, although the most basic distinction in law between ‘blended’ and ‘straight’ whiskey would not last the Revolution and the Emergency Programs. Whiskey production in the United States represented the worst excesses of Gilded Age American capitalism. Distillery workers at the time of the Revolution were largely non-unionized and those members who were unionized were organized along craft lines. Distillers and liquor distributors were forbidden from joining the Knights of Labor, America’s first large scale industrial union. No known distillery workers’ union joined the General Strike of 1877. At the historic First Industrial Congress (1905), there were no distillery workers known to be in attendance. What this meant in practical terms was that the Beverage Workers Section of the Foodstuff Workers’ Industrial Union No. 460 had a blank slate for remaking the industry and complying with the Emergency Programs of the IWW’s Executive Committee. This contrasts with the state of the brewing industry, to be discussed in a later chapter, where a large portion of workers were already unionized but non-affiliated with the IWW.
Much of what was being made during this time period was not ‘bourbon’ whiskey which was made at the time from a mash bill of primarily corn and malted barley, but instead ‘rye whiskey’ which used primarily rye and malted barley. This supposedly gave it a spicy herbal character rather far removed from the sweeter, mellower flavors of historical bourbon whiskey. Rye whiskey as a category has been effectively extinct in the United States since the Special Period of 1950s. It is not currently manufactured in Peoria, Lawrenceburg or any of the smaller distilleries in Kentucky, Pennsylvania or Tennessee. In the present day, bourbon whiskey is synonymous with American whiskey, except for the semi-illicit spirit still found throughout Appalachia under various names but most commonly known as ‘moonshine’, although many would argue that spirit is even further removed from what we would call whisky .
This brings us to the first reason that ‘bourbon whiskey’ can not be sold in the United Kingdom as whiskey/whisky and that is the mash bill. In short, the mash bill is the list of grains used to make a sweet porridge which will first be fermented and then distilled and then aged into whisky as we know it. Bourbon whiskey, as above, historically used a mashbill of corn and malted barley. This would prevent historically produced bourbon from being labeled as a ‘malt whisky’ but not as a ‘grain whisky’, which can have additional cereals, malted or unmalted, alongside malted barley. However, bourbon whiskey as produced in the modern day often contains no malted barley and in fact, no malted cereals in any form.
This is rather astounding if you understand the conventional method of whisky production in the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan. Malted barley provides the enzymatic action by which a floury starchy sludge is converted into a sweet porridge, fermented from there to an unhopped beer and then concentrated and distilled. Attempting to create a conventional whisky without malted barley or malted cereals of some kind would simply not work. Americans were, in their own unique way, able to remove one of the foundational elements of whiskey. They did so through a borrowing by way of Japan, not the last time modern American food ways would benefit from the received wisdom of Asia. Rather than relying on the enzymatic action of malted barley, American bourbon production relies on the enzymatic action of a mold still known within the trade by its Japanese name- taka-koji.
How taka-koji made its way to the United States and then, ultimately into the hands of Industrial Union No. 460 could constitute a book in and of itself. In short, a Japanese biochemist named Jokichi Takamine isolated an enzyme which still bears his name (takadiastase) from the Japanese traditional product of koji and then set out to find a way to apply this enzyme to the production of distilled products. This ultimately caught the attention of the Peoria, Illinois based Distillers and Cattle Feeding Association, better known as “the Whiskey Trust”. Takamine was hired by the Trust and moved to America. He refined a method of growing koji not on the rice of his home country, but on wheat bran, a cheaper and more abundant medium in his adopted home. He dubbed this product in a moment of humility taka-koji. Takamine produced a single whiskey product known as Banzai in honor of his Emperor, and it achieved modest success. Far more useful, however, was the threat of cheaper whiskey which the head of the Whiskey Trust, Joseph Greenhut, was able to dangle above the head of any competitor in a series of acquisitions, kickbacks and backroom deals. When that era’s Whiskey Trust finally collapsed upon itself in 1895, Takamine’s Banzai Whiskey ceased production and the man himself returned to Japan where he would go on to make a fortune in health food products based on taka-koji and would become the first biochemist to isolate adrenaline. The promise of taka-koji would be shelved until the 1930s, to be rediscovered by Industrial Union No. 460, tasked with reducing the cost of industrial and fuel alcohol to better supply a world lurching towards war.
Taka-koji was returned to the creation of drinking whiskey in the Special Period of the 1950s, that decade defined by drought and food crisis across the North American continent. Distilling was an industry which squandered both water and calories and its continued operation was obscene. Socialism in America came the nearest it would ever veer to teetotalism in those hard years. Industrial Union No. 460 shuttered their distilleries by late 1953 as the enormity of the crisis became apparent. They would not resume true production runs until late 1957, operating minimal production runs with skeleton crews only to prevent decay of the equipment. The fiercely independent brewery crews of Industrial Union No. 460 were able to maintain their operations and cement themselves as the backbone of a logistics network for America’s relief bakeries, but the distilleries lost many of their skilled workers as volunteers to relief efforts or to other Industrial Unions. Many of them would never come back to the silent industrial hulks of Peoria or Lawrenceburg.
Those that did would find the industry shaken to its foundation. America was after the hard years of the Special Period ready for a drink. The distilleries were not ready to offer it. Barley was largely unavailable and what did exist was earmarked for the brewers and the bakers. Barley is a very efficient grain when it comes to the creation of alcoholic beverages. However, barley, particularly in the United States, is almost never the most effective use of land on a per-acre basis. Demanding the planting of more barley from the Agricultural Workers’ Industrial Union No. 110 was demanding the planting of less wheat, which simply wasn’t going to happen. The distilleries went to find what they could distill and there were really only three sources of fermentable sugars available to them in post-Special Period America: corn, sorghum, and sugarcane. Sorghum and sugarcane would not require the diastatic power of malted barley to be fermentable but only corn was readily available in the quantities needed by the large distilleries. Luckily, taka-koji had been further refined since the 1930s for fuel alcohol production and no longer required even wheat bran. It could be effectively cultured on macerated corn stalks. Sorghum and sugarcane spirits would eventually join the lineup of Industrial Union No. 460’s output but not even they would dare to call any such thing whiskey. Facing not only a shortage of barley but of skilled maltsters, the distilleries ran only a few production runs in 1957 and 1958 with malted barley begged from the breweries and experimental runs with malted corn before committing fully to the use of taka-koji and mashbills of 80% unmalted corn or greater. Bourbon whiskey as we know it today was born in those runs.
Taka-koji gives bourbon whiskey some of its unique and most divisive characteristics. When at its finest, taka-koji gives a whiskey the aroma of dried apricots, buckwheat honey, fresh lilacs. At its worst, taka-koji gives a whiskey the aroma of sweaty feet, horse blankets, moldering straw. As any French cheesemonger will tell you, sometimes you must smell the feet of God. Not many expect to do so in a snifter. In the early days of this new bourbon whiskey, it was likely worse, as the taka-koji raised and nurtured by the fuel alcohol distillers had not been selected for taste. This nurtured the habit of drinking quickly from a straight sided glass; this minimizes the most offensive aromas. In most bourbons, the characteristics of the taka-koji fade into the background. To better ensure this, Industrial Union No. 460 returned to the well of methods rectifiers had once plumbed, and in so doing did more to advance the science of whiskey than all the men of Scotland. Most of these methods would prevent it from being sold as whiskey in the UK just the same.
Scotch whiskey is stringent on what can be added after distillation- water and spirit caramel. Scotch whiskey is stringent on how casks can be filled, how long they must be filled and so on and so forth. Bourbon whiskey has very few of these same restrictions and so it has experimented greatly with every part of the process from distillation to the drinker’s lips.
Most bourbon whiskey which you will drink in America has never touched the inside of a true barrel. Following the Special Period, Industrial Union No. 460 found themselves with a distinct lack of skilled coopers. They often found at the end of a run that they would not have any barrels in which to put their whiskey. This led to a practice of “resting” in stainless steel or ceramic, often for years, before an abbreviated period of contact not with a barrel but with staves of American oak. This practice has been justified on economic grounds, as this leads to less losses to evaporation, less expenses for oak and the elimination of many of the expenses and the dangers of a conventional rickhouse. It has also been defended as a point of quality by the distillers, as oxygenation and maturation before touching oak allows the characteristics of the mash (and the taka-koji) to develop more fully and to stand out against the oak. Corn dominant mashes tend towards delicacy, the argument goes, and can quickly be overwhelmed by oak. This argument would hold more water if not for the many, many ways in which much of the bourbon sold in the US is often adulterated with things for which no argument of delicacy can be made.
The first and most prominent additive to bourbon whiskey production is sawdust, exclusively from American oak. This allows a quick, rough and dirty coloring and oaking of the whiskey if you do not want to waste time and space resting the liquor. Microoxygenation, since adapted to great fame and acclaim in France’s vineyards, has been used at this stage since the 1980s in American distilleries. Vanillin, produced from the waste of New England’s paper mills is next, rounding out the harsher notes of the sawdust. If the distiller has added too much vanillin, the next step is to correct it with tannins, which can help to counter a cloying vanillin addition. In too great an addition, it can lead to an unpleasant astringency and drying effect with each sip. At one time most of the tannins were sourced from the vineyards of California but as American palates began to favor tannic wines, the sourcing of tannins has shifted instead to acorns. At this stage, they may add spirits caramel, although American consumers are far less concerned with color and for the heavily rectified grade of whiskey, they often make no attempt at standardizing color.
Many of these processes were not necessarily needed by the distilleries, or even independently requested by the distilleries. Americans will often talk about worker’s self-management, decentralization, economic democracy. The distillery workers of Lawrenceburg and Peoria elect their managers. They elect the councils that make up the Beverage Worker’s Section of Industrial Union No. 460. They vote on the appointment and recall of trustees to oversee the broader business of distilling. Even in our most unionized industries, to say nothing of our nationalized industries, they have more agency than any workingman in this country. Despite the very participatory nature of this American industry, it has ultimately had its fate determined by outside forces and actors. The Emergency Program of the 1930s demanded the increased production of industrial and fuel alcohol, the reduction of expenses related to heating and boiling and malting. The distilleries provided it. The Emergency Programs of the 1950s asked that they tighten their belts, close up shop and send their men to war against hunger. Their stills went cold. When they were told to eliminate one of the foundational elements of whiskey and were refused the provision of one of their most basic ingredients, they complied. They were asked to reduce their use of new oak and find a use for wood pulp by the Wood Worker’s Industrial Union No. 420, so they did. They were asked to find a use for sawdust by the Lumber Worker’s Industrial Union No. 210, so they did. They were asked to take the waste of the vineyards by their California brethren, so they did. The distilleries and distillery workers of America adapted to each demand placed upon them in a manner that is almost unthinkable anywhere else and created a product that, although it may have its flaws, is American to the last drop.
America’s native spirit, after years of being led by the rest of the nation’s demands, is now taking the lead. Distilleries and distillery workers have been at the forefront of America’s opening to trade and travel. The ADWG’s trade battles with the British Government have not been their only front; they have succeeded in their labeling battles in France and Germany and scarcely had to fight at all to find acceptance in Japan, China and India. Japan is alone among these countries in having its own whiskey tradition, but for their part, the Japanese see bābon as a sister to their own shochu, not a blasphemy against their worship of Scotch (although no Japanese since Takamine would have dared to do what Americans did). The distilleries of Kentucky and Tennessee, although relatively unimportant in terms of volume of production, are repositioning themselves as hard-currency establishments, tourist attractions, although how well that will work remains to be seen. They have also made moves towards improving quality, both for the import and export markets. In 1985, Industrial Union No. 460 announced that they would finally begin labeling future production ‘blended whiskey’ rather than ‘straight bourbon whiskey’ if it used any of the post-distillation additives mentioned above. It is a small step towards quality and transparency and will take some time, given production lag times, to have impact on the shelf, but it is progress nonetheless. I am hopeful for the future of bourbon whiskey. My only concern is that in seeking wider approval, bourbon whiskey will become less like itself. There being Americans involved, however, I have little fear of that.
See Appendix I: Understanding America’s Hard-Currency Shops and Services
 Keen readers will note an extraneous ‘e’, this is not a typo, hold letters to my editor.
Americans, unfortunately, exhausted their skill at creating acronyms sometime in the 1970s and you will find that many aspects of their government and business sound like they were named by a committee… because they often were.
 See Appendix II: Understanding The Basic Structure Of America’s One Big Union
See Sidebar: White Lightning for my experience with America’s other native spirit
Buying Guide for the British Bourbon Enthusiast
A printed guide to the fill codes used on bourbon whiskey bottles can be requested from the American Club (London). Request “Bourbon Whiskey Fill Code Guide” and enclose £10. This can be particularly useful for dating post-1985 bottles but can also be used to see beyond the labels and allow more effective exploration of the spirit by the dedicated connoisseur.
Bourbon can be found in London at the Chestnut on King’s Road, Gerry’s Wine & Spirits and Jack’s Off-License. Bottles bought in London will be labeled “Alcoholic spirit distilled in the United States of America from various cereal grains”, but the contents are otherwise identical. Duty free stores in Heathrow Airport will sell bottles labeled “bourbon whiskey” or “blended whiskey” on rare occasions, but far more common are bottles labeled “alcohol spirit”.
Below are the two finest bottles of bourbon whiskey I have ever acquired, along with my sensory notes as a basic guide to the variety found in finer bourbons. If you find them on the shelf somewhere, buy two. My post information can be requested from the publisher to forward the second.
Wild Bill Haywood Premier Reserve
COLOUR : Amber
NOSE : Vegetal, with notes of dried apricots and wet straw
PALATE : Well balanced, medium mouthfeel, caramel and hay
FINISH : Long, complex
Mellow Corn 7 Year
NOSE: Animal musk, with notes of dark cocoa
PALATE: Aggressive, thin mouthfeel, digestive biscuit and baking spice
FINISH: Long, astringent